On May 26, 2021

Alderman wants Rutland to back up inclusion statement

By Brett Yates

Through a proposal aimed to boost LGBTQ Pride Month locally, Alderman Thomas Franco is hoping to help make Rutland City’s recent symbolic commitment to diversity and tolerance a little more tangible.

On May 3, Rutland City officially adopted a declaration of inclusion, which “condemns racism and discrimination of any type and welcomes all persons, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or disability.” Although approved resolutions by the Board of Aldermen require a signature only from the board president, all 11 members and Mayor David Allaire elected in this case to sign the resolution individually as a display of support.

In the recent past, issues that, in the eyes of some community members, lie at the crux of the question of sensitivity and openness toward racial minorities and other marginalized groups have divided Rutland. Most significantly, former mayor Christopher Louras’s 2016 effort to bring 100 Syrian refugees into the city faced opposition, in some form, not only from many residents (who voted Louras out of office) but also from the current mayor — as well as Tom DePoy and Sharon Davis, who continue to sit on the Board of Aldermen.

Just this year, DePoy introduced a resolution condemning 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, among other events, to counter then-Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey’s resolution against the January riot at the U.S. Capitol, sparking a long debate. By comparison, the declaration of inclusion represented a moment of unanimity and garnered praise from political higher-ups like state Senator Cheryl Hooker and Senator Bernie Sanders, in addition to statewide media attention. Franco, elected in March, recently expressed a belief that it may now be time for the board to begin to turn words into actions.

The alderman started an address at the board’s May 17 meeting by reaffirming his enthusiasm for the declaration. He went on to draw attention to a survey by the Vermont Dept. of Health that, by his account, showed that LGBTQ youth in Rutland County have “faced statistically significant higher rates of bullying, feeling sad or hopeless, of attempting suicide, of trying cigarettes before the age of 13, and also higher rates of drinking alcohol and using prescription drugs inappropriately.”

“I think it’s of utmost importance that our board think of trying to alleviate these issues and address them,” he added. “I want to ensure, given the board’s commitment to creating a welcoming community, that we try to identify ways to support [Rutland’s LGBTQ population].”

Franco mentioned the work of a Bennington-based nonprofit, Queer Connect, that has a newer branch in Rutland. By Franco’s account, the organization, which puts together an annual “pride caravan” by which Bennington and Rutland residents converge upon Manchester for a celebration of LGBTQ culture, intends to host events in Rutland in June.

According to a GoFundMe page, Franco has helped with a fundraiser for the group. Now he hopes that, in some fashion, the city will pitch in. “I spoke to Mayor Allaire last week, and he was very open to sitting down with the organizers of Rutland Pride and other stakeholders to find ways that may be fitting for his office to play a role,” he recounted.

The board agreed without objection to send Franco’s proposal for a potential city partnership to the community and economic development committee. Even so, the evening failed to end on a note of accord, thanks to a late disagreement between Franco and DePoy.

This time, the dispute concerned another issue near the heart of Rutland’s cultural divide: the high school mascot, which switched from a Raider (with a controversial Native American arrowhead for its logo) to a raven this February — though some school board members hope now to change it back. The Rutland Area NAACP and two other groups have issued a call for “all school districts in Vermont to discontinue interacting with Rutland City School District for athletics, extracurricular activities and any other activities” in the event of such a reversal.

In turn, DePoy called upon the NAACP to fire Mia Schultz, the president of the Rutland chapter, immediately. Referring to the attempted boycott as a plan to “punish adults by punishing our children,” he added, “such a retaliatory effort is not befitting of a person who represents the NAACP.”

Franco distanced himself from DePoy’s condemnation of Schultz. “I disagree with Alderman DePoy entirely,” he said. “She is a private citizen and has every right to speak what she believes is a necessary movement, certainly as the leader of the NAACP, which has worked historically for marginalized groups, particularly people of color.”

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